Taboos in Proto-Indo-European

Words are potent and dangerous magic spells. Well, maybe a word like “toothpaste” isn’t particularly magical, but most words carry some power to them; and some words are so powerful that using them in casual conversation can have terrible unintended consequences. For example, there are any number of words — single, individual words with simple, uncomplicated meanings — that I could drop into this journal entry, and thereby cause half of you, dear readers, to leave and never come back. Forgive me if I don’t list out these words for you. But of course, they are words for Defecation, Reproduction, and People Not Like Me (racial/national/ethnic groups).


definingPaganism1Notice that I can safely hide these taboo topics under a shroud of Latin euphemism. If I write “defecate”, I am saying something very nasty — but it’s in Latin, so we don’t have to cover the children’s ears. In a very real sense, it’s not the concept that is magical, but the word itself. This is because the word is not just another concept, but a whole host of other social constructs. Let’s take a very mildly taboo word, such as — and please do forgive me — “booty”. This word is currently strongly favored by my three-year-old son. He likes to say it loudly and slowly, savoring the harmonics as it were. He does not know the sexual connotations of the word, but he knows instinctively that the relevant anatomical region is a sensitive one, and he likes getting a rise out of his parents. For him, and for us, it is a word of power. It gains its power not only from what it refers to, but from its connotations of sexuality, playfulness, and dance. Misuse of the word can have important consequences. If a male doctor uses it with a female patient, for example, he is probably breaking anti-harassment laws, and it could have serious consequences for his career.


Two powerful tools we can use to get around taboo words are euphemism and deformation. Euphemism is when we use a different, related word for the concept, thus avoiding unwanted associations. If, for example, I say “backside” or “seat” instead of “booty”, I can avoid sexual connotations and lawsuits. Deformation is a process in which a word is deformed slightly, so that is still recognizable and understandable, but is not the word itself. In modern English this is especially common with religious figures, giving us words such as “golly”, “gosh”, “geez”, “jeepers”, etc.

Windows on Culture

The list of words that a culture finds it necessary to euphemize or deform can tell you a lot about the culture. The fact that we deform “God” or “Jesus” but not “Apollo” or “Artemis” indicates the predominant religion in our culture. Our taboos against words for defecation and copulation are pretty standard for human societies. However, racial and national epithets only became taboo in the last couple of generations. During the world wars, people thought nothing of calling Germans and Japanese by nasty names; but now, when a right-wing ideologue calls Muslims “ragheads” it raises controversy and outrage. It is taboo for a good reason — the taboo indicates an inclusiveness and sensitivity in our society that has grown stronger.

Faded Spells

Now last we come to Proto-Indo-European. Linguists have been able to identify what they think may be euphemisms and deformations in this proto-language, the common ancestral tongue of languages as widely diverse as English, Hindi, Russian, and Spanish. For example, candidates for deformation include the words for “language” and “wolf”. These deformations can be identified by the unusual sound changes they undergo. For example, the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European word for “language” was “dnghwa”, which became “Zunge” in German and “tongue” in English through the regular processes of sound change. These same laws of sound change should have given “dingua” in Latin, but instead we find “lingua”. One theory for this odd sound change is that the word “dingua” was taboo, so it was commonly deformed to “lingua”. If this is true, it could indicate that the people understood the power of their language, and did not invoke it casually. Similarly, the tentatively reconstructed Proto-Indo-European word for “wolf” is “wlqwos”, which was deformed to “wulfaz” in proto-Germanic and “lupus” in Latin. This could indicate that wolves were held in such high esteem that the very act of naming them was dangerous.

Speaking of Hands

There are also candidates for Proto-Indo-European euphemisms. Just the other day, I was reading “The Druids” by Peter Ellis — which I’m enjoying a great deal; I may post a review when I’m finished (in the meantime check out this neat review by Michael Dangler at — and he mentioned that the Proto-Indo-European word for “hand” may have been religiously significant, because in many of the daughter languages, the word for “hand” varies widely. For example, in the Germanic languages we have “hand” or some close variant; in old Irish we have “lamh”; in Greek, “cheir(o)”; and in Latin, “manus”. Ellis goes on to theorize that the word for hand (which most linguists agree was probably “men”, the ancestor of Latin “manus”, from which we get “manipulate”, “manual”, etc.) was significant because there was a solar deity known for having a long arm or a long hand. The sun was seen as having a long arm or hand metaphorically — presumably its rays were seen as arms or hands. This solar deity with the long hands is known in the Irish legend as Lugh, and in the Hindu legend as Savitar. It seems likely that the hand — that is, the word “men” — was so closely associated with this god that people felt uncomfortable referring to their own hands with this word. As an example of how this can happen, consider the history of the word “gay”. The word originally referred, of course, the joyful feelings; then it became associated with homosexuality, and its use in the second sense became frequent enough that people found it impossible to use the word “gay” without thinking of homosexuality. Now, “gay” has almost lost its original meaning.

In the next entry, I’ll explore the next logical question: what did hand mean before it meant hand?

5 Comments Add yours

  1. travis says:

    the root of the germanic ‘hand’ is the PIE *kmt (where m is a resonant, used as a vowel), which is also the root of the word ‘count’ and comes from *kom- ‘with’ (source of con, like conjunction) -ei- ‘go, walk over’ (root of way, go) -t (probably the third person singular suffix) so meant to move along with, to carry on, to continue (as in the counting). That proto-germanic shifted the meaning of this word to ‘hand’ indicates that the earliest PIE used their hands to count, and so this word was also an abstract counting unit. the PIE word for ‘ten’ was *dkm(t), which is *dwe/o ‘two’ and *kmt ‘hand/counting unit/five’ so ‘two hands’ became ten. additionally, hundred is hund+red, from PIE *kmt + *rtu ‘order, measure’ (source of read, road, rate, also Dutch raad, council, governing body), so this word means something like ‘measured count, defined quantity’ in the sense of a higher amount than the one previously (the ‘count’ and the ‘two counts’). lastly, thousand *teh3 ‘to swell, to increase’ (source of thigh, tumor, tomb, tumulus, thumb) and *kmt, so meant something akin to ‘big count’ or maybe better would be ‘fat count’. the study of PIE numerals is fascinating and there are many great books on the subject.


  2. travis says:

    in addition, PIE researchers often reconstruct two words primarily for ‘hand’ *meh2(nos) and *gheh3s; the latter seems to survive in Anatolian and the eastern dialects along with Greek (cheiro) and is probably the older, anatomically exclusive word. the former seems to have been used metaphorically as a sense of power (as in to lead, to have in hand, to control) and therefore may be related to *men (mind, mental) suggesting a conflation, in the minds of PIE speakers, of human beings as those with minds AND hands’


    1. Jeff Lilly says:

      Thanks for these great comments, Travis! Can you give a source for your information on the PIE root *kmt being the root of ‘hand’? I haven’t seen that in my resources. What evidence is there that it’s derived from *kom+*ei+*-t? It would seem pretty conjectural. I also don’t see it suggested that PIE *dkm (ten) was in fact *dkm(t) (‘two count’). However, that hypothesis certainly doesn’t seem unreasonable.

      As for the other roots: why is it thought that the *gheh3s root is the older, anatomically exclusive word? If its descendants are geographically limited and only found in a few daughter languages, wouldn’t that make it less likely to be of very ancient origin?…


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